Our personal line of defense for fighting infectious diseases is our immune system. Viruses and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, but can make us feel miserable, be unpredictable and deadly.
Can we strengthen our own immunity to better protect ourselves?
There are actually everyday choices we can all make to help our bodies be at their best in battling dangerous infections.
“Immunity is the ability of an organism to resist a particular infection or toxin”
What Impairs Immunity?
The word ‘immunodeficiency’ is used to describe an immune system that isn’t working as well as it should. People who have immunodeficiencies are more likely to become infected by a virus or bacteria. These infections can also last longer and be more severe.
Some situations can hinder a person’s immune system that would otherwise be working normally. Many of these factors can be modified in ways that lead to improved immune function (1).
Not getting the right type and amount of food can lead to immunity problems. Malnutrition is often cited as the most common cause of immunodeficiency throughout the world. Eating too much of the wrong type of food can also cause problems by contributing to obesity and conditions like diabetes.
Diabetes impairs the immune response. Blood sugar control through diet, exercise, and medications can help to reverse these negative effects.
Some medications, such as steroids suppress the immune system. While some people need these medications to treat their other health problems, there are sometimes alternative treatments that can be used.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a disease that attacks the immune system. By regularly taking HIV medications people with HIV can minimize it’s negative effects on their immunity.
Kidney and liver disease can cause a build-up of waste products such as urea which can also suppress immunity. Eliminating this waste from the body can improve immune function.
Not Modifiable Factors
Both extremes of age are at risk for immunodeficiencies including the very old, who may begin having decreased immune defenses and the very young babies who's immune system isn't yet fully developed.
- Genetic Diseases
Luckily these conditions are much rarer than the modifiable causes of immunodeficiency.
- Trauma, Surgery & Cancer
People who have had their spleen removed, people who have cancer (especially those on chemotherapy) and those who have experienced significant trauma can all suffer compromised immune function.
Who’s at Risk for Infection Complications
Infections can cause serious problems, including death. How healthy someone is before they get sick can have a major impact on how quickly they’re able to recover and how many complications they experience from the virus or bacterial infection. People who already have major health conditions are at a higher risk of dangerous complications.
Infections put a strain on our bodies. Bodies that are already weak can struggle to keep up with the demand that infections may impose. For example, someone with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes may be at a higher risk of having a complication like a heart attack or heart failure from an infectious process than someone who is the same age without those conditions.
Bottom line: People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to getting infections and those who already have health problems are more likely to have complications from these infections.
People can lower their risk of serious infections by choosing to make key lifestyle changes.
What a Healthy Immune System Needs
The truth is, scientists are still researching the details on how our immunity is influenced. It’s an intricate system with countless interactions and therefore it’s not yet clear exactly how much a single factor affects the system as a whole.
A combination of healthy lifestyle practices seems to have the biggest positive influence on our immune function.
The right diet, exercise and healthy weight management can help a weak immune system become stronger at fighting infections.
Can Food Fight Infection?
Contrary to many marketing claims, research has unfortunately not yet found one magic food that ‘boosts your immune system’.
Food is still a critical component of immune function, however, it’s contribution is likely just a bit more complex.
All parts of our bodies need nourishment, and the immune system is no different. Getting enough calories is crucial. Ensuring that this calorie intake includes enough protein also seems to be particularly important in growth, development and immune support.
Certain micronutrients have roles in immune function including zinc, folic acid, iron, copper, and vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin E (2 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Eating a well-balanced diet should provide most people with all of these micronutrient needs. However, some people with certain medical conditions (and socioeconomic situations) can have a harder time getting the nutrition they need.
Taking a daily multivitamin is a great place to start for anyone concerned about meeting their daily micronutrient requirements. Of course, everyone is different and it’s always important to get personalized medical advice from your doctor about what you require to meet your needs.
How to Help Your Immune System
While some people may have variations in their immune response, following these basic principles can help your immune system to function at its best.
1. Improve Your Nutrition
Consume a balanced calorie-controlled diet to meet your nutritional needs.
2. Exercise Regularly
Regular cardiovascular exercise reduces the risk of the most common chronic diseases and may improve immune function.
3. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Living at your ideal body weight also reduces the risk of and helps to treat some of the most common chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
4. Wash Your Hands
Using sanitary practices protects yourself from exposure to infectious sources.
5. Limit Toxins
Always avoid smoking. If you drink alcohol, make sure you only consume a moderate amount (10).
6. Manage Stress & Get Enough Sleep
Being well-rested and healthy stress management practices, such as meditation is also important to help support healthy immunity (11).